One of the themes seen in the current outrage about AIG, executive pay, and the rest is that what seems "normal" to people who have a lot of money and power may be interpreted as signs that they are arrogant, greedy, and insensitive assholes by people who lack such riches and influence. There are lots of causes of this weird clash, but certainly one of these -- as I have written here before -- is that being in positions of power and status causes people to become remarkably oblivious to the needs, feelings, actions, and even mere presence of those who lack power. See here and here.
Lawyers aren't the only ones who suffer from this disease, but the dynamics of law firms, with vast status differences and cultures that too often encourage selfish and nasty behavior, are breeding grounds for such dynamics. When my wife worked at a law firm, she often commented how insensitive some the lawyers were to paralegals and legal secretaries, standing and talking in front of their desks as if they didn't exist, bragging about their riches, or perhaps most unfortunate, complaining about how little they were paid within easy earshot of people making who made one-tenth of that amount.
Along these lines, I ran into a great blog post at She's Lump. I frankly can't figure out who Lump is, but she clearly works in an office with a lot of attorneys who are suffering from power poisoning. And her blog is great, no bullshit, and straight from the heart. Here is her post There Apparently Isn't a No Asshole Rule Here -- which starts:
For a little over a week, I’ve been making a list of things I hear the many attorneys I work with say on the elevator ride up to my office. It’s not as if I’m eavesdropping because I am in an elevator after all, and it’s somewhat hard to have a conversation without someone taking note – and that someone is obviously ME.
These attorneys want to know everyone’s business as well as flaunt their own for the whole elevator audience to hear (OK, not all of them are like this). Or maybe they’re just fucking loud.
Loudly trying to ONE UP the other.
One uppers are assholes.
Then, she provides all kinds of examples of "one uppers," notably the attorney who is bragging about his new Porsche and then is one-upped by the one who bought a new plane.
Of course, lawyers aren't the only ones who suffer from this problem -- I am all also for capitalism and I think it is great when people get rich, especially if they are people I like. And certainly, we need people to start buying stuff to help bring back the economy. But if you have more money or power than the people you come in close contact with, the lesson is that you might show a little restraint and awareness about how insensitive your words and deeds may sound -- unless you WANT them to think you are an asshole.
P.S. This also reminds me of a conversation that I had with one of my former neighbors perhaps 15 years ago. I asked her what she was doing for Thanksgiving. She looked very sad,and told me that, she would have to stay around the Bay Area because her husband -- a new venture capitalist -- hadn't made enough money to buy a place in Palm Springs like his more wealthy partners. Envy is an awful thing, isn't it? By the way, her husband struck it rich during the dotcom boom, and she know lives in a huge mansion. I am not sure they ever got the house in Palm Springs, but I hope she is happy with her riches. I guess Kurt Vonnegut's poem didn't capture her world view.